UPSTREAM / DOWNSTREAM: A Tale of Two Music Festivals
And PURSE-GATE AT THE QUEER SHOW!
Multi-stage, multi-day music festivals are another world. Attendees who commit to a full time experience are on a vacation of sorts. The energy, enthusiasm, and the pace of moving from one stage to another create an exciting whirlwind. Last month, The New York Times published an article about aging rock fans using their retirement to attend them. Seattle already boasts Bumbershoot and Capitol Hill Block Party, but they were missing an aspect of the most acclaimed music fest in the U.S., South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, every March since 1987: industry panels that attract professionals. Microsoft founder and billionaire Paul Allen has contributed Upstream Music Fest & Summit to the Emerald City’s music fest landscape, with the clout to close streets in Pioneer Square and attract Macklemore and Quincy Jones among its keynote speakers. It debuted last weekend with a mostly positive response, and a few glitches.
Like SXSW’s inauguration, Upstream chose to focus on local music, booking a handful of national headliners once PNW acts were in place. Reportedly 1200 musical acts applied and a little over 300 were selected to perform. Some of the leftovers joined another fest, Downstream, held on both stages at Fremont/Ballard nightclub Substation, even submitting their Upstream rejections for consideration. It’s healthy. As Slamdance is to Sundance, as STIFF is to SIFF, and as countless alternative fests are to SXSW, here’s hoping Downstream will keep Upstream on its toes and thrive on its own.
While security at Downstream was minimal, I was surprised to read Facebook posts from two different industry professionals asking for people who loved music to work security for Upstream—only 48 hours before the festival. I messaged the secondary security staffer and he said he’d only been asked the day before those posts. Adequate security is more than a minor detail for 3-day event that reportedly drew 30K people. That oversight makes what happened on the middle day of the fest a surprise: Purse-gate At The Queer Show! Mowave booker Jodi Ecklund was asked to curate an all-queer show (previewed in SGS) downstairs at the Galvanize Building. Despite personally having no issue with my purse at other venues over the course of two days, I was not allowed re-entry to the Mowave show with my medium-sized purse after ducking out for a bite to eat. Other women were affected, too, with one FB commenter noting, “Music is enough of a ‘boy’s’ club as it is.” But Ecklund expressed optimism that the festival’s “kinks” would be sorted out next year.
Rumored to be funded for five years (billionaires can do that), will Upstream outgrow its kinks and grow into the entertainment behemoth that is SXSW, with its separate Music, Film, and Interactive entities? Seattle already has SIFF, the largest film fest in the country, so adding a film component to an event that takes place a week before isn’t likely. But with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft dominating this city’s economy, expect interactive to play a role while you’re grooving to one of the best and most diverse music scenes in the country.
Here’s a diary of the Upstream and Downstream acts (and antics) I saw.
THURSDAY, May 11, 2017
Star Anna at Comedy Underground, 6:45 pm.
Star Anna is easily one of the most gifted vocalists in the PNW. The first time I heard her sing, she was playing a free show on a Sunday afternoon to an outdoor audience at The Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. It was noisy bunch until she sang the first line of her slow, intense cover of Call Your Girlfriend. Suddenly, “pin drop” silence covered the patio. Star’s Upstream set started off with the same devoted attention until, a couple of songs in, the inadequate space began to burst at the seams with her many, many fans. She’s simply too big an act to have been sandwiched into a tiny, dingy, low-ceilinged root cellar with no proper stage. And Pearl Jam’s Mike McCreedy was to follow? This venue also garnered gripes from merch sellers, and my wife, on her way to meet me the next day, noticed a wet t-shirt competition in front of the club—during the fest. Upstream should lose this venue. It’s an insult to established, revered performers and their dedicated audiences alike. [Star Anna plays The Skylark tomorrow, May 20, and Slim’s Last Chance with opener Jamie Nova, June 17.]
Grace Love at Court In The Square, 6:45 pm.
Not able to see Star Anna adequately opened the gate to catch the last part Grace Love’s set, set at the same time. (Also in this early time slot, Guayaba—another amazing female vocalist logistically too far away that day, who wowed a packed house at The Wildrose on Capitol Hill in February.) Grace is no stranger to major fests, including Bumbershoot and a nationally televised performance at Sasquatch. With her all female band, she commands any space with her powerful pipes. [Grace Love plays The Grolsch Blues Festival in Germany, June 3 & 4.]
Rani Weatherby of Champagne Honeybee, was also in attendance at Grace Love’s show, glowing from meeting Quincy Jones earlier in the day. She busked in front of Café Umbria on Saturday afternoon and, quite frankly, deserved an official showcase of her own. [Champagne Honeybee plays The Vera Project, July 28.]
Year of The Cobra and He Whose Ox Is Gored at Elysian Fields, 7:30 pm and 9:00 pm.
Two bands in, and the wife and I were hungry! Which venue would be likely to have food? Elysian, of course, with their delicious Avatar Jasmine IPA. Though not on our original schedule, the two female fronted bands we stayed for were also tasty. Diligent “doom duo” Year of The Cobra perform thunderous, tightly-wound jolting earthquakes of searing sound with lead vocalist Amy’s calm delivery floating above to save you. [Year of The Cobra plays Substation, June 9.]
And how could we not stay for a band named He Whose Ox Is Gored? Their sound is chaotic, yet also deftly layered, orchestral “progressive metal sludge,” with weaving time signatures and ever expanding chords. Thoughtful and intriguing. [He Whose Ox Is Gored is currently on a national tour of the U.S.]
The Maldives, J & M Café, 9:30 pm.
These fifteen-year Seattle music veterans led by intense singer/songwriter Jason Dodson are always a must-see. They’ve evolved into their own hybrid of urgent folk rock and there always seems to be room to add more players. Their latest album, “Mad Lives,” dropped March 31.
Seated near us at The J & M for The Maldives show, a father and son asked me what printed schedule I was perusing. My own. I handed it to them and invited them to keep that copy for the weekend. They’d been struggling with Upstream’s mandatory app. Not only does it require you to sign in with Facebook (don’t have an account?—they ask you to create one), you have to sign in to activate the computer chip in your wristband that gets scanned each and every time you go in (and out, automatically) of a venue. The handful of folks I talked to about the app didn’t care for it. My concern was not to have a dead phone at the end of the night when it’s time to request Uber. I gave a copy to the production manager of three consecutively located venues who appreciated it. Next year, dear ‘stream fellas, let’s stream this down and get old school about it. The app is fine for details, music, and videos, but don’t send us diving en masse for the nearest outlet to resuscitate phones simply to find out which band is on next.
Budo & Kris Orlowski at Starbucks At The Ninety, 11:00 pm.
In addition to his solo work, Budo (aka Josh Karp) has written and produced for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. His collaboration with rich-voiced, charismatic indie-folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski debuted new songs at Upstream. The video to their single “Waterski To Texas” was also directed by Budo.
[Budo plays The Crocodile’s Back Bar, May 30.]
During their set, an oddly dancing woman was discreetly taken outside where she kissed the ground. Apparently security was aware of past bad deeds and smoothly pre-empted any problems. Well done.
Hobosexual at Axis #1, 11:30 pm.
Y’all, southern rock is alive and well in the PNW! What a hoot! This grinding, hair-whipping, crunchy-fried sweaty duo Tore. It. Up. One fan was so moved she literally jumped into the mix. Sincere fun.
[Hobosexual plays during Ballard Seafood Fest, July 7, 8, & 9 (just announced).]
FRIDAY, May 12, 2017
Neu Yeuth at Axis #2, 6:00 pm.
Another “not originally on my schedule” delight, this synth duo happened to be next door to Axis #1, where I hoped for a better Star Anna experience than the day before. In an effort to kill time, I was drawn in to their polished electronica and silky vocal harmonies. Worth watching.
The Soft Offs at Axis #1, 6:45 pm.
This loosely formed group (they wrote some of their songs that week) is another side-project of Star Anna’s. She’s prolific, including her much lauded Patsy Cline tribute appearances at The Triple Door. More thrashy glam punk than her solo stuff, Star casually announced The Soft Offs have been toying with this venture for 5 years, appearing sporadically. It’s worth further exploration, as is everything she does.
For those acquainted with SXSW rules, bands who get into that fest are not allowed to play other than their sole SXSW gig (except for unadvertised parties, etc., which often legendarily go until dawn). But Upstream openly scheduled official showcases for at least three performers twice. In the case of The Soft Offs, it’s a completely different act. Musicians often play in different bands. But for those who got TWO holy sanctioned shots at festival glory with their main act, I can’t help but wonder if those second slots could’ve gone to some of the very deserving locals who didn’t make their particular cut. Next year?
Dust Moth at Galvanize Basement (Mowave Stage), 7:15 pm.
Dust Moth’s dark dirge is elevated by lead vocalist Irene’s sugary pleas and plaints. Non-traditional arrangements propel their sonic journey. The overall effect is progressive and dreamy. On their third recording, they’re ready to break out.
Tiffany Wilson at Starbucks At The Ninety, 9:30 pm.
Tiffany was not on my schedule, but I accidentally ran into her wife in the shared ladies room between venues! I’m so glad I did. Tiffany Wilson is a star in the best sense of that word. She has a huge yet distinct, precise, emotive voice, a big bold band complete with a Dap Kings-styling horn section, and compelling original songs. But what truly makes her so relatable and endearing is her gift to uplift. Hers was the most engaged audience I saw all weekend. She’s real and people love her for it.
Saturday, May 3, 2017
Planes On Paper at The J & M Café, 9:30 pm.
The wife and I fell head over heels for this sensitive, minimalist band at the BIG BLDG BASH a couple of years ago. The thoughtful sound of core duo Navid Eliot and harmony vocalist Jen Borst with added pedal steel at Upstream infused all the more languid melancholy to their unique sound. We like to listen to them on Thanksgiving because we’re so grateful they’re a part of Seattle’s music scene.
[Planes On Paper play the Conor Byrne Pub, June 24.]
I walked into Downstream at Substation on Saturday night still wearing an Upstream photo badge, and nobody gave me the stink eye (not that I noticed). I milled through the crowd in the big stage room as Kings of Cavalier literally took their swan song bow, and booker Tim Basaraba gave me a hug. In the hallway were Nacho Mama’s Tamales and various arts projects for sale. It was a smaller and very inviting atmosphere. My sense was that no one felt like they were working—everyone there was emotionally committed to Downstream’s success. It was palpable.
Stereo Creeps at Substation’s Main Stage, 10–11ish pm…
Punk rock like mama used to make. Good, old-fashioned punk with some heavy grit. Seemed like nice fellas, too.
[Stereo Creeps return to Substation, June 9.]
Peace & Red Velvet at Substation’s Recording Studio Stage, 10:40 pm.
I’d been dying to see this rap/hip-hop/soul duo with golden voices for so long, and their Downstream appearance exceeded any dream of how good they could be. The audience (which included trans musician/filmmaker Clyde Petersen) hung on every note, every syllable, and every gesture. We were willing puppets in the magic they so freely and generously tossed into the air like rice on a wedding day. Oh! And there was cake, too. 😉
[Peace & Red Velvet play the BIG BLDG BASH, June 3.]
– Xanna Don’t
Photos (mostly) by the wife, Ann Brown